Tagging Up Denver

The cityís aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

"See, you can see the gangs will come down here and just cross out everybody," Felsoci says. "It's sloppy." With so many possibly rival taggers packed in such tight confines, he wonders how long it will be until someone gets seriously injured or killed in one of the tunnels. "They could die down there, and the only way we'd find them is after the next big rainfall flushed them out," he says.

The purpose of the SCAT unit is to deal with street-level crime as it happens. Because of this, SCAT officers do not take calls. Since first starting on the SCAT team four months ago, Felsoci has learned that catching taggers is as much about them being lazy as it is about good police work.

"This team is all about productivity and making arrests, and I was told that tagging and graffiti arrests was a really big thing," he says. "I'm like 'Oh, my God, how am I going to catch one of these taggers?' And then I got a guy with a marker, and I was all excited. And lately it seems that we're at the right place at the right time. So we should see the activity around this area slow down a little, because we've busted about seven or eight of them.

Members of TKO are ready to write.
Jim J. Narcy
Members of TKO are ready to write.
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.
Jim J. Narcy
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.

"I think they're just getting lazy, more lax. So, it's a lot of being in the right place at the right time, sitting and watching the kids and them being a little lazy," he says. "Honestly, it's just a lot of luck."


GATES decides she is feeling blue. She kneels in the dirt and stares into her open bag. It's black with a canvas strap and bigger than it looks. She selects one of six cans of Rustoleum and holds it down low where the warehouse security light is slipping under the freight car. She reads the label: "Aqua." She begins by spraying a long arch and filling in her background. Eventually, she swaps the Aqua for some Royal Blue, careful to keep her pack organized and secure.

As soon as she begins with the outline, GATES hears a sound from the other side of the tracks. She crouches down and signals for her male companions, WALDO and ELAB, to stop work on their pieces. She slowly climbs between the trains and over the hitch. She peeks down the railroad yard but sees nothing. She crawls back to position and drops the signal to resume painting.

As railroad spots go, this one is relatively safe. Directly behind them is a now-quiet recycling facility where huge cubes of mashed up cardboard and magazines are stacked like aging ruins, shielding them from view. More important, the freight cars are not hooked up to an engine.

"I'm really, really cautious about painting trains," says GATES, the only female member of the SWS crew. She's been at it for eight years, since her early twenties in Texas, where an interest in punk-rock activism and wheat-pasting grew into tagging and then a full-blown obsession with train bombing. Like many female writers, she chose a feminine tag name, MEOW, and followed a style that flaunted girl-power themes with softer colors and cartoony letter forms, as if to say girls can vandalize, too, motherfucker. But, instead, she soon felt that the approach predisposed writers of both sexes "to give me extra credit or something just because I'm a girl."

So after moving to Denver in 2002, she went the opposite direction and chose a genderless tag and an equally indistinguishable style. Now, most people who have spotted a GATES piece on a train or a city wall have no idea that the writer behind the name is female, let alone a single mother who works as a stylist in an upscale Denver salon.

Clack, clack, clack.

She sets in with the jet-black paint, carving an outline around the G and the A. When she first started, her train pieces were small, "'cause I could get the idea out and do it a lot faster without worrying about it." But these days she knows that if you want to get seen and not get covered, train pieces have got to be big. In order to trace her can to the top of the T, she has to stand on her toes.

"I'm so friggin' short," she laughs in a whisper. "The tops of my Ts are always blurry."

While GATES doesn't want her productions to be loaded with stereotypes, she's more than willing to utilize other's assumptions as a means to become more productive. Being a short white girl on a bike sure comes in handy when law enforcement and wary citizens are profiling for the thugged-out taggers marauding down alleyways or lurking in the spray-paint aisle looking to "rack" supplies. Meanwhile, GATES is la-la-la-ing out the side door with an entire shopping cart of swiped Krylon.

WALDO and ELAB, both members of the R86 crew, first began to get into graffiti through the hardcore music scene. For them, the aggression, energy and basic act of defiance of graffiti seem to fit with the music. "Please, everyone, keep thinking that we're all a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids from the hood who wear humongous pants and listen to hip-hop," GATES says sarcastically. "Every single one of us."

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